KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Mason Foster and Zach Brown stood in front of their lockers late Monday night and stared, amused, at Foster’s foot and middle toe. The toe was a deep purple, almost the color of grape jelly. The foot was the same color, and bulging like it had been stuffed with mini marshmallows. Those weren’t Foster’s real injuries, though — he played through a shoulder that had been dislocated two weeks earlier. (“It’s whatever,” the linebacker said of his shoulder. “Once it was strapped down, I felt all right. As long as I can tackle, I’ll be all right.”)
A few lockers away, and maybe 45 minutes later, safety Montae Nicholson was the last Redskins player to dress. The team was waiting for him to leave the stadium, but after damaging his shoulder and then re-injuring it in the final minute, the rookie could only go so fast. “It’s kind of hard,” he pointed out. “I’ve only got one arm.”
Have fun finding a prominent Redskins player who wasn’t hurt at some point in Monday night’s 29-20 loss to the Chiefs. Josh Norman had a rib fracture. Robert Kelley got knocked out with an ankle injury. Trent Williams left with a knee injury, although he later returned. Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed both came into the game nursing injuries, and both seemed unusually ineffective. Martrell Spaight suffered a rib injury of his own; “just pain, man,” he said as he left the locker room. “Pain in the back of my ribs. I’ll find out later what the problem is.” Washington dressed nine defensive backs; at least five of them had to leave the field at various points. I was getting ready for someone to tell Dan Snyder he was needed on the sidelines again.
“I was on the field like, man,” safety D.J. Swearinger said. “I’m just looking around, and we’ve got all backups in. Then I see Zach go down.”
“Guys was dropping like flies,” said Brown, who got kneed in the face by an offensive lineman and was having trouble opening his jaw after the game.
“When you’ve got guys on this defense that play as hard as they do — flying around, playing special teams, playing their heart out every single snap — you’re going to see guys get hurt,” Foster added, before grimacing as he tried to remove his shirt.
Okay, Washington’s loss was deserved. The song doesn’t go “Hail to the Redskins; hail (moral) victory.” The Redskins outplayed two of their first four opponents, and got out-played in their two losses, both of which were capped with meaningless defensive touchdowns. A bye-week record of 2-2 seems right.
But the season’s first month was far more interesting than I’d have guessed, and that’s because the defense is far feistier than I ever imagined. That battered defense wore down badly in the second half Monday night, when the Chiefs almost tripled Washington’s time of possession (22:14 to 7:46) and more than doubled Washington’s offensive snaps (43 to 18). Still, there were moments that made you think this unit will win games for the Redskins this season, that the final 12 games won’t be a repeat of that tug-of-war between an elite offense and a hapless defense we’ve seen for two years. That’s the biggest takeaway from the first month: If things go right, Washington could be one of the league’s more complete teams, something that hasn’t happened here in at least a decade.
Think about the sequence in the first half when Norman and Bashaud Breeland leveled two Chiefs within seconds of each other, the sort of hits that make you gasp out loud. Or think about rookie Jonathan Allen, bulldozing bodies again along with Matt Ioannidis, his bulldozing buddy. Or about Brown, chasing down Kareem Hunt short of the goal line from behind, with speed that a 251-pound linebacker shouldn’t have.
The Chiefs punted on their first three possessions, which meant the Redskins defense had allowed a total of 13 points over six consecutive quarters. I googled the date of the Super Bowl somewhere in there. (It’s in Minneapolis, by the way. No, I have no clever ideas about how one might get there.)
The Chiefs figured something out, even as Washington’s medical staffers started earning way too much camera time, and the final numbers looked considerably less appealing. But there were so many “ifs” over the last three quarters, many revolving around silly penalties away from the ball. A third-down stop, negated by an illegal contact penalty against Bashaud Breeland. A third-and-long, turned into a third-and-short after Preston Smith jumped offsides. A third-down stop, negated by illegal use of hands against Breeland. And especially that third-and-goal stop wiped out after Smith lined up offsides. Kansas City scored a go-ahead touchdown on the do-over.
That’s not even counting the other first down Kansas City earned on an offsides call, or the late hit on Junior Galette that could have been measured with a sun dial, or the horse collar against Breeland. Washington’s toughness on this night was not matched by its wisdom.
“I was just trying to make a play, but in those moments I’ve got to be more careful,” Breeland said. “It was critical times in the game where I hurt my team. … Costly plays that really cost us.”
“We killed ourselves on third-down penalties,” said Smith, who’ll be hearing whistles in his sleep for the next two weeks.
“They’re the best team in the league right now, and we kind of had ’em on the ropes for a bit, but you can’t make that many mistakes against a team like that,” Ryan Kerrigan said.
“Stupid penalties: jumping offsides, facemask,” Brown said. “It’d be a whole different game.”
Because yes, Washington’s still an “if” team: If this had happened, or if that had happened, or if this hadn’t happened, maybe the result would have been different. That’s most teams in the NFL, and it isn’t any comfort when the “ifs” are detailed in the morning paper. If the Redskins had won this game — and Josh Doctson had the go-ahead touchdown in his hands with less than 60 seconds left — people would be asking right now if Washington was the best team in the league. At 2-2, no one’s asking that.
Maybe the Redskins will remain on this .500, what-might-have-been treadmill. But you also can imagine something better now: an above-average offense joined by an above-average defense, creating an above-average team. That would have sounded silly in August, and it doesn’t now.
You know, if that defense can stop gift-wrapping first downs inside yellow hankies, if it can turn batted balls floating gently in the air into interceptions, and if it can wrap its stars in enough athletic tape to make you forget about bashed ribs and purple toes.